Could an enormous, somewhat clumsy, furry green dragon survive unnoticed in a forest? Robert Redford’s character Meacham in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon thinks so. But to a child named Pete, there’s no question. When a car crash killed five-year-old Pete’s parents and threw him into the forest, the dragon adopted him.
Pete (actor Oakes Fegley) and the dragon he named Elliot lived an undiscovered and idyllic life together in the forest for five years until… one day… a girl Pete’s age spotted him. Natalie, the girl, doesn’t see Elliot – the magical dragon can become invisible. But once Pete and Natalie become friends, Pete introduces her to Elliot. And the adventure begins, one in which Pete and Elliot become separated, Elliot is threatened, and that’s where the spoilers end.
Pete’s Dragon has its roots in Disney’s 1977 animated film of the same name, but for this film, the story changed from an entertaining musical to a gentle, family-friendly action adventure. Making the story work and making the always-CG dragon believable in a live-action film was a daunting task. But, with the help of the talented Weta Digital artists who created and animated the dragon, and with actors Redford, Fegley, Oona Laurence (Natalie), and others who performed with a dragon stand-in on set, Director David Lowery and his crew created a film that has received critical acclaim – 87 percent approval on the review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes.
Filmed in the forests of New Zealand and in bare canyons shot in New Zealand but forested at Weta Digital, the fantasy film incorporated approximately 700 visual effects shots, nearly all of which include the CG dragon. We see Elliot in close-up shots with tiny Pete, we see him disappear into the forest, we see him fly above the forest with Pete on his back, and we see him in places no dragon should ever venture.
Weta Digital’s Eric Saindon led a crew of artists that grew to approximately 200 who created Elliot and, when needed, digital environments. Animation Supervisor Mike Cozens supervised the team that gave Elliot the ability to fly and to carry on quiet conversations with Pete without relying on dialog: Elliot doesn’t speak; he is not anthropomorphic. Compositing Supervisor Ben Roberts led the team who fit Elliot into the live-action plates and made Elliot invisible.
DRAGON ON THE SET
In addition to supervising the postproduction at Weta Digital, Saindon was the on-set digital effects supervisor. To help animators later and the production crew during filming, Fegley had a full-size furry head to snuggle against and a green, 22-foot-tall blowup dragon for eyelines. The blowup dragon doll also gave everyone an idea of the dragon’s volume.
“We thought about doing real-time com-positing, but there wasn’t a need,” Saindon says. “The head was better for Oakes to interact with. And, the blowup dragon gave us the mass, the girth, and width. His wings took up a lot of space.”
Prior to filming, The Third Floor provided previs, as did Weta Digital, with the latter also providing postvis. For some scenes, Saindon gave the video sync crew on set pre-canned animation of the dragon for live composites as a rough guide that helped Director Lowery see how the dragon would fit into an area being filmed.
To help animators later, Fegley rode a motion base and sometimes rode on a crew member’s shoulders.
“We had solutions depending on the problem that needed solving on set,” Cozens says. “The nice thing about doing the previs and then rolling into blocking and shots is that we handled a lot of problems early on.”
DESIGNING, FLYING, AND REFINING
Meanwhile at Weta Digital, the digital dragon began taking shape as modelers worked from sketches by Lowery to sculpt the film’s Elliot.
“He gave us his thoughts about what a dragon would look like to someone who is five years old,” Saindon says. “That’s where we started. You can actually see little sketches by Pete in the movie that are sim-ilar. Then we pulled in Disney-esque ideas, like a big chin from Lion King’s Scar.”
To visualize Elliot’s facial expressions, the crew referenced and grouped together photos of animals in different poses – animals that looked like they were smiling, or angry, or sad. As they tested poses, they refined the design.
Ears that were once on top of Elliot’s head moved lower and to the side to help him look sad when needed. His nose evolved into more of a horse’s nose so that animators could use his nostrils to help tell his mood. His fur changed from a fluorescent green to a color more appropriate to a forest than a jungle. And the artists gave him a little pattern on his neck to better blend into the trees.
Each hair in Elliot’s furry green coat was simulated.
“We had a million hairs on King Kong [in the 2005 movie], and we simulated probably a tenth of them,” Saindon says.
“Everything was interpolated between. Elliot has 20 million hairs, and we individually simulated all those hairs.”
Whatever Elliot did, whether flying, walking, or lying down, each hair moved appropriately and interacted with other hairs and anything else touching him, thanks to the compute power available in 2016 and more efficient proprietary simulation software.
“When Pete grabs a handful of Elliot’s hair, the simulation provided the proper interaction between his hand and the fur,” Saindon says. “Without that connection between Pete and Elliot, we wouldn’t feel for the dragon.”
As for Elliot’s wings, at first they were as small as the animated dragon in the 1977 film.
“But, we did motion tests with those wings and knew that for a photoreal film, we needed wings that people believed would keep him aloft,” Saindon says.
The crew determined the size the wings would have to be for his body mass, but they didn’t look right, either.
“They were gigantic,” Saindon says. “They looked stupid.”
An albatross provided the answer.
“An albatross’s wings don’t seem big enough to keep the bird in the air,” Saindon says. “They’re really clumsy in the way they take off, fly, and land. So, we incorporated that into Elliot’s character.”
Elliot’s a portly fellow, as Cozens puts it, with the potential for being a little clumsy. But how to make him aerodynamic?
“In the beginning, we tried tucking his wings in to make him look like a plane, but it didn’t work because of his shape,” Cozens explains. “He looked like a caterpillar with wings. But [Senior Animator] Graham Binding found a reference from Fantasia with Pegasus flying and another of polar bears swimming underwater. In both, the creatures used their limbs to almost swim, whether it was through the air or water. And polar bears were the right body type.”
Thus, the animators opened up the poses and spread out Elliot’s limbs so he would, in effect, swim through the air.
“He became a gangly, loose character that we could almost let slip out of the sky in places,” Cozens says. “He wasn’t always the most graceful, and that change in thinking spilled into his personality.”
Elliot’s personality changed through the story – he’s a magical dragon, so he can be anything that works in the moment. When the frightened, five-year-old Pete first meets Elliot, the dragon is an old, wise, and majestic creature. Later, but still early in the film, Elliot is a teenaged brother to 10-year-old Pete. To-ward the end, Elliot becomes more parental.
ELLIOT’S ART-DIRECTED WINGSPAN IS LESS THAN WOULD ACTUALLY BE NEEDED TO CARRY HIM ALOFT, SO THE BIG DRAGON ALSO “SWIMS” THROUGH THE AIR WITH HIS LEGS.
“David [Lowery] had a story he wanted to tell with the character, but he leaned on us to develop who the character was and how he would behave in storytelling moments.”
With that freedom, the animators found ways to add some Elliot quirks to the storytelling.
“It was fun to find things for Elliot to do that were not on the storytelling notes,” Cozens says. “There is a moment when Elliot sees a [CG] butterfly. He’s surprised, then angry, and then curious. We wanted him to be curious, but layering in the different reactions first allowed us to create a more rounded character. Another time, Elliot wakes up in the morning and can’t find Pete. Instead of having him immediately become worried, we have him first react as if Pete’s playing a game. Then, he becomes concerned. Finding those little micro expressions and ways for him to react weren’t on the nose for storytelling.”
Through it all, though, the team kept Elliot from veering into anthropomorphism.
“I worked with Christian Rivers on previs for a while, and we had long conversations about creating characters,” Cozens says.
“I think we made a good choice early on, probably based on experiences with other films Weta has done, and that was to keep Elliot an animal.”
The animation team began with motion studies that examined how the digital pup-pet’s rig would work, and how Elliot’s scale would work in relation to little Pete. In terms of the rig, the trickiest spot was the area between his shoulder blades.
WETA DIGITAL’S FUR SIMULATION SOFTWARE PROVIDED THE INTERACTION THAT MADE THE CG DINOSAUR BELIEVABLE WHEN NATALIE AND PETE STROKED THE LOVABLE CHARACTER’S FACE.
“Pete needed to sit on Elliot’s shoulders at the base of his neck,” Cozens says. “Elliot’s wings move when he’s flying, and he uses his limbs a lot, which move the scapulae around. We spent time finding a good solution for where Pete would fit in that spot so it would work with plate photography and look like he was sitting on the dragon.”
For Elliot’s performances on the ground, the animators posed him based on photos of bears, cats, and dogs, and moved him us-ing reference videos of elephant walk cycles, horse run cycles, and other animal gait pat-terns to see what worked on the CG puppet. Then, they looked for emotional moments.
“We found cute animal videos,” Cozens says, “the ones that people reacted to emotionally. Someone had a cute video of a puppy falling asleep while standing up. We had a reference of a mother elephant encouraging her baby to get up. We tried them on our big character to see what played and what didn’t.”
Even a video of an arctic fox hunting in the snow found its way into an Elliot performance.
“We mimicked his motion when he jumped up and then slammed onto the snow, added more weight and physics, and that became the leap Elliot does in the beginning of the film,” says Cozens.
The animators also looked for animal reference to move beyond those types of broad action beats and give Elliot the subtle performance needed to create a relation-ship between Pete and his dragon.
“When Pete introduces Elliot to Natalie, Meacham, and Grace [Bryce Dallas Howard], we gave Elliot a subtle performance by confining the animation only to his head,” Cozens says. “Little ticks and ear twitches. Sometimes it’s harder to find the right thing for those quiet, still moments. We pored over dog behavior videos to see how their muzzles might move. The more we can draw from real creatures, the more believable the result. It’s funny how when we gave him animal-based expressions, people transferred the right emotion onto the character.”
During the film, Elliot’s performance sometimes had to drive subtle storytelling points and do so without dialog, while remaining more animal than human. At one point, for example, Elliot uses a picture book Pete had with him when he fell from the car to make a point.
“He gets Pete to look at a specific page,” Cozens says. “We had to find an animal way to do that with body language and subtle head ticks. We based his movement in dog behavior and used only a simplified range of facial expressions.”
At another time, Elliot tries to convince Pete the two of them can continue hiding successfully.
“Basically, Elliot goes invisible and then reappears,” Cozens says.
It fell to a team of approximately 40 compositing artists led by Ben Roberts to accomplish the sleight of hand that would convince the audience that the 22-foot furry green dragon could move in and out of invisibility.
“The director’s original idea was to use camouflage effects,” Roberts says. “He sent us clips and pictures of animals using their natural covering to protect them in the wild.”
ELLIOT DOESN’T SPEAK AND IS NOT ANTHROPOMORPHIC, SO ANIMATORS NEEDED TO FIND WAYS FOR THE DRAGON TO COMMUNICATE WITH ELLIOT. HERE HE USES PETE’S PICTURE BOOK.
In addition to studying natural camouflage, the artists referenced the work by artist Liu Bolin, who paints himself to blend into various environments.
“The standard idea of ghosting to create an invisible thing can tend to look cheesy, so we tried lots of ideas to camouflage Elliot in various environments, and they worked well,” Cozens says, “until he started moving. Then, we had to come up with new ideas.”
Many ideas, in fact. The compositors ended up with a range of techniques they would try in different situations and shots. For those when the audience first sees “in-visible” Elliot, they used a camouflage technique and painted patches that matched the plate photography and projected the patches onto the CG model to blend the dragon into the background. The result was much like something Bolin might have done.
“We also used lighting passes to blend in the projections,” Roberts says. “The shadows and light gave Elliot form within the plate photography. The problem we had in a technical sense was that we couldn’t get the geometry with all his fur on, so we rendered a data pass with Elliot standing in a T-pose. That helped tell us where the pixels moved when Elliot moved.”
Dust particles simulated with Elliot’s motion helped create a sense that the mostly invisible dragon was moving through the space and gave Elliot the slightly magical feel the director wanted. Blending several frames together when Elliot moved worked until he moved too far and too fast.
“We’d use displacement and refraction to drive distortion on the background and dial it in per shot,” Roberts says. “The director wanted to see Elliot’s performance and not see it. Sometimes we can see his face. Sometimes only his eyes. We’d dial the camouflage, the refraction, and the reflection up or down so that David could change the emotion of the scene, even slightly. It was a great creative process.”
Most of the VFX shots were of Elliot composited into plates, but the end sequence was largely CG, with the actors work-ing on greenscreen stages. For backgrounds in these scenes, the artists would often project plate photography onto 2.5D geometry. “The photography gave us all the lighting cues and the other information we needed to make the shots as good as we could,” Roberts says.
The crew also created thousands of CG trees to fill in the background for the end sequence, and to forest a bare New Zealand canyon shot from a helicopter for other shots. During the film, Elliot would fly through the forest with Pete on his back.
“A pine beetle had killed all the pine trees in the canyon,” Saindon says. “So, we shot multiple passes down the canyon to be able to do photogrammetry later. Once we had the geometry, we added the CG trees.”
In addition, the crew created a CG deer, a CG butterfly, and a few digital doubles. For modeling, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya. Weta Digital’s rendering soft-ware Manuka handled lighting. Compositors used The Foundry’s Nuke and in-house tools for deep compositing to fit the CG characters into the plates and help make the CG shots believable.
“We use deep compositing all the time,” Roberts says.
“It means we can combine lots of CG renders together quickly, and they can all hold themselves out in 3D space as they should. It also means we can render characters and environments that interact with each other, and if one of those elements changes, we only have to re-render the necessary things because all the elements know where they are in space. That way we get quicker turnarounds.”
As with many films, the last act of Pete’s Dragon has the most effects. And in most films, the last act has the most challenging effects. But, that isn’t what Saindon cites for this film.
“I should say the third act, with its all-CG environment, destruction, and typical VFX hoopla was the most challenging,” Saindon says. “But the reality is that the hardest parts were the intimate scenes between Pete and Elliot, the slow parts. The subtlety of Elliot was the biggest challenge. To have the dragon breathe fire and have angry action is pretty standard. We’re all used to doing things like that. But to get emotion out of a CG character that’s obviously a CG character and not a double in the background is hard. You can’t hide a big green furry dragon.”
Or, can you?
Barbara Robertson (BarbaraRR@comcast.net) is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.